By Philip Watson

(Esquire, April 2002)


She was sleek and slender and had the perfect body. Just 14 years old, she had skin that was radiant and unblemished. She came from a distinguished family and emanated class and good breeding. She carried a certain elegance and moved with style and grace – all agreed she had a film star’s presence. And she was worth, at the time of her death, at least £100,000.

She was called Doris and she was a 35-inch koi carp from Japan that died controversially at the 2001 UK National Show in Peterborough, the equivalent in the world of koi – it’s actually “koi” rather than “koi carp”, since koi is the Japanese word for carp – of Crufts or the Oscars. An error had been made in the water quality, and Doris was so distressed at one point that she tried to jump clear out of the show pond. Her distinctive red markings began to turn white. The next morning, despite being rushed to another pond 200km away, she was found at the bottom, dead.

While Doris’s owner, Midlands businessman Bill Oakley, was distraught – the fish was named after his mother and had won an unprecedented three supreme champion titles – and the mistake led to a major inquiry within the show’s organisers, the British Koi Keepers’ Society (BKKS), the detail that brought the blunder to the wider public’s attention was the value of the fish. “Poison pond mystery of big money Big Doris” waxed the Daily Mail, while some insiders speculated that the true price paid for the koi was actually £125,000. The question being asked was this: how could a messy-looking oriental goldfish be worth more than the price of a house?

The answer to that conundrum is to be found in a world peopled by such impassioned fanatics, and that embodies essences both of eastern art and mysticism, and western science and genetics, that it makes the commitment and enthusiasms of bonsai and pigeon fanciers, antique and classic car collectors, even breeders in the bloodstock industry seem pale and simplistic in comparison.

For one, at the high-class end of the market, there are the vast sums of money involved. The highest price paid for a koi by a British collector is the subject of considerable debate and disagreement among aficionados, but one of the UK’s leading koi retailers, Peter Waddington of Infiltration in Cheshire, an expert who spends up to three months a year sourcing fish from Japan, claims that he’s sold the most expensive. He’ll only reveal though that it fetched “more than the price of a new Mercedes SL 500” (around £68,000).

Yet the chairman of the BKKS, Gary Pritchard, says that he knows of koi that have been bought in Japan by UK owners for £150,000 and that pop producer and Pop Idol judge Pete Waterman, at one time the premier celebrity koi collector in the country, paid £220,000 for a Japanese prize-winner. Pritchard also says that he is aware of two koi in this country, given as a gift from the chairman of a large Japanese corporation to a senior futures market executive in the City, that are worth £750,000 each.

Even those values seem modest by Japanese standards. While Waddington says that prices in Japan are shrouded in contra-deals, favours and part exchanges (but that he has seen prices “exceeding £380,000”), Pritchard claims top oriental owners have paid £1 million or more.

“I know that one collector paid £1.25 million for a koi he believed would go on to win Japanese supreme champion,” he says. “I also know for a fact that the chap who runs the Japanese Koi Keeper’s Society, Masao Kato, who is part of the huge Kato crane and train building company and one of Japan’s most prominent collectors, has paid around £1 million for a fish – and that he owns 715 very high quality koi. That puts it into perspective, does it not?”

In fact, it makes the amount of money changing hands in Japan between breeders, agents, dealers, retailers and owners start to rival the huge sums generated by the thoroughbred stud industry around the world.

The global koi business – and it’s estimated by the BKKS that there are 250,000 ponds in the UK containing koi – also goes much further than the simple acquisition of the fish. Many varieties of koi are extremely sensitive to their living conditions, with size, shape, and the quality of skin and colour varying according to the amount and purity of the water in which they swim, and serious keepers are prepared to go to considerable lengths to keep their fish happy. Good ponds should be a minimum depth of 1.5m and a volume of 3,000 gallons, and at a start price of £1 per gallon they are a significant investment.

Add filtration, purification and aeration systems – vital because koi excrete and urinate into the water around 30 per cent of their body weight each day (essentially they’re swimming around in their own toilet) – and heating systems that are important in winter, as koi find it difficult to survive if the water temperature drops below 52F, and the cost of a koi pond, even for beginners, can be £6,000 or more.

Additional pumps, piping, contouring, drainage, lighting, aquatic plants, skimmers, ultra-violet lights (to prevent the formation of green algae), waterfalls and landscaping can multiply that figure many times over. Because of the existence of “koi-nappers” and a black market, with some fish being stolen to order, and punitive premiums for insuring exotic pets, security systems, alarms and CCTV are even installed to protect the most valuable collections. The most expensive pond built in Britain is said to have cost £225,000.

Then you have to feed the precious things. Not only do some koi swim around in water of a finer quality than most humans drink, the voracious fish are often fed fruit, lettuce, bread and honey, prawns, even chicken. One keeper reputedly rewards his koi with a baby’s dummy full of honey, which it sucks on while he tickles it under the chin. Most are given special vitamin and mineral enriched food – but again it ain’t cheap.

“A kilo of the best available koi food is more expensive than a similar weight of the best fillet steak,” claims Peter Waddington. “The ends to which some owners will go to keep their fish happy is quite something – their ponds are like luxury hotels. I’ve got some regular customers who would not think it unreasonable to spend, on running, maintaining and feeding costs, as well as occasionally buying new fish, £100,000 a year.”

* * * * *

 The appeal of collecting koi can be almost as mystifying as the prices paid for them. Go to a good garden or aquatic centre, or to one of perhaps 100 dedicated koi retailers in the UK, and it can be hard to believe that these ornamental fish, which originate from the ancient, hardy and almost inedible black carp found in eastern Asia, are little more than narcissistic goldfish with fancy clothes and too much attitude. Sure, you’ll find them displaying a shimmering rainbow of colours ranging from white, grey, silver and gold, through to bright red, blue and yellow, and swim figures of eight with an easy poise and precision, but surely they hardly equate in beauty and value with a classic Ferrari or a modern Irish racehorse.

“You’d be surprised,” says Bill Oakley, a property developer who owns the 2002 UK National Show champion and 13 other high class jumbo koi (fish longer than 85 cms), as well as previously keeping Doris. “In Japan they’re called living jewels and swimming flowers. Koi are like paintings – no two in the world are alike.”

Enthusiasts also seem to find koi mesmerising and magical. You’ll hear owners talk of the calming and reassuring affects of watching them – koi keepers are said to have lower blood pressure than the rest of the population – and it’s true that many council cemeteries have stocked the fish. Freddie Mercury, a dedicated keeper who amassed a collection of 89 koi worth hundreds of thousands of pounds at his London home, was said to have found great solace from the fish while he was dying of Aids.

“I’ve lived a full life, and if I’m dead tomorrow I won’t give a damn,” he once said. “I’ve finally found a niche I was looking for: to have my wonderful Japanese garden with all these koi – I love it.” Tragically, however, the majority of Mercury’s fish died last summer in another accident, having been kept in a temporary container during rebuilding work to his pond.

In part, it seems koi offer some connection with serenity and spirituality. Water has long been known as a symbol of life, and fish are used to characterise creativity, inspiration and the subconscious. Actress Charlize Theron has a tattoo of a koi on the back of her ankle, as a mark of love and good fortune. As part of Japanese culture and thinking, koi may also attune owners to ideas of eastern philosophy. Pete Waterman, who became so involved in the fish that he developed his own koi-breeding business in the early 1990s, even once went as far as to say, “koi changed my life, introducing me to a form of Zen”.

“When I come home after a stressful day, I go out to my koi and I sit there and think about the world and my life, and I share it all with the fish I suppose,” agrees Bill Oakley. “There is something mystical and tranquillising about them, if you allow it to come to you. I also love people, and people who keep fish, especially koi, are generally more gentle and caring folk.”

These are, after all, no ordinary fish. While the most valuable varieties such as khaki (white base with red markings), sanke (white with red and black) and showa (black base with red and white) only live for up to 40 or 50 years, because they have been genetically strained so far from their original black and brown imprint that they have become weak and vulnerable, the oldest known koi has been proved to have lived 226 years. Some varieties grow to 1.4m and more than 50lbs. The Japanese call them “samurai fish” and instil them with such human characteristics as courage and strength.

Some enthusiasts also regard them more as pets than precious works of art. As well being trained to take food from their owner’s fingers, some koi have been known to come up for kisses, swim backwards, even turn upside down and have their stomachs rubbed. Koi have been known to respond to music and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. One in Japan allegedly comes up for a drag of a cigarette and can blow smoke rings.

Still, while some claim that fish-keeping, in all its forms, is the biggest hobby in the world, and tiny, low grade koi can be bought for as little as £2.50, the expense of keeping koi makes it prohibitive to most. Although some addicts have gone “koi kimchi” (koi crazy) and been known to forego their own food and heating to ensure their fish have both, high-class koi is a cult, and there is undoubtedly a certain status and social cachet conferred on those who join it.

As well as Waterman and Mercury, celebrities as diverse as Nigel Benn, Jim Davidson, David Bowie, Madonna, John Major, Adam Ant, Ryan Giggs, Mick Jagger, Cliff Richard, Bill Gates and Michael Jackson have been known to keep koi. The Queen stocks them in one of her ponds at Buckingham Palace. Businessmen and entrepreneurs throughout the world, from the UK to Holland, Germany, Israel, South Africa, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and America keep them as a prestigious symbol of affluence, a conspicuous badge of new money. It’s little surprise that Essex is one of Britain’s main centres for the “koi polloi”.

“If you’re a multi-millionaire and have a fleet of Rolls-Royces and a house on each continent, you then need something that no-one else has,” says the BKKS’s Gary Pritchard. “So you either go down the Van Gogh and Gainsborough line or you buy a supreme champion koi.”

What makes a champion is a matter similarly open to debate. While 70 per cent of the marks a koi will receive in competition are based on fairly universally recognised standards of skin quality and body size and shape (even down to facial structure), the other 30 per cent is made up of more nebulous aesthetic judgements such as the originality and beauty of the koi’s pattern, artistry in the water, even a “master of pond” personality.

“I don’t know how they do it but some are like film stars,” coos Gary Pritchard, who is also an international judge. “While some hide away from you and won’t, under any circumstances, be photographed, others will literally follow you around the pond as if to say, ‘here I am – and this is my best side’. It’s crazy.”

Because of the skill and difficulty in breeding them, most will also be kohaku, and, despite the master of pond moniker, 99 per cent will be female. “Female koi grow long but, unlike the males, they produce shape and volume too,” says Peter Waddington. “They’re like the female of the human species – they have bodies that are just more pleasing to look at.”


Being Koi

* Koi is an abbreviation of nishikigoi, which means “brocaded carp”

* Carp originated in the Caspian, Black and Aral Seas, where they were coloured black and bred purely for food, despite tasting sandy and bland, and being full of bones

* Imported to the rest of Asia and China, they were introduced to Japan by the invading Chinese in 200AD

* At the beginning of the 19th century, Japanese farmers, who bred carp in the ponds used to flood their rice paddies, discovered that some of their fish had begun to develop red and white scales. These koi were collected and bred as a hobby and eventually further colour strands and mutations emerged. There are now 100 or more varieties

* In 1914, a tri-coloured koi was exhibited in Tokyo

* Shows and competitions began in Japan in the 1960s, about the time koi were first imported to Britain

* Female koi can lay between 100,000 and 500,000 eggs, out of which, after skilful selection, as few as ten may be good enough for showing purposes. Parents make a big difference. “Koi are like racehorses,” says Pete Waterman. “If you want a good bloodline, you have to pay. The better the line, the better the babies”

* In parts of Australia and New Zealand, where koi have become the dominant species and killed off native plants and fish, they are regarded as noxious vermin. Koi are hunted in the wild and there are fines of up to £60,000 for keeping them

* For general information on koi go to www.mykoi.com. There is even a koi chat room for addicts: www.koichat.com


Fishy Tale

In one of the most acrimonious and long-running neighbour feuds in recent times, 75-year-old pensioner Ellen Jones was last year ordered to pay £35,000 damages for a campaign of nuisance and harassment that ended, it was alleged, with her stealing – and eating – several of her neighbour’s koi.

Jane and Mark Fowler said that over an 18-year period Miss Jones had allowed illegal raves and paintball war games on her 90-acre farm in Newchapel, Surrey. They also claimed that she let it be used as a cannabis factory, smeared dog shit on their fence, lit acrid bonfires, and set their house alight, nearly burning it down.

When a number of valuable koi went missing from the Fowlers’ ornamental pond, at first they thought cats or herons had taken them. However, a local koi stockist believed that unlikely – cats would have left bones and the fish were too large for herons.

Mr Fowler’s suspicions were raised when he spotted feisty former Second World War “land girl” Miss Jones and her farmhand, Charlie Rashbrook, conspicuously eating food on the steps of a caravan next to her home, making sure Mr Fowler could see. “Nice day for a fry-up,” shouted Mr Rashbrook.


© Philip Watson, 2002/2015